Scientific discovery, arduous exploration, and even hideous diseases of centuries past set the stage for Andrea Barrett’s remarkable fiction. Readers have sailed to the Arctic (The Voyage of the Narwhal, 1998), mapped the Himalayas (Servants of the Map, 2002), and felt the scourge of typhus in Ship Fever, which nabbed a 1996 National Book Award. Barrett’s new novel, The Air We Breathe, unfolds in a remote tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondacks circa 1916. At the brink of the U.S. entry into World War I, the isolated community is drawn into the war in unexpected ways, through tragic accidents, yearning love, and whopping betrayals. Victoria Lautman interviewed Barrett, who spoke by phone from her home in western Massachusetts.

Q: You didn’t get your fill of TB with The Cure, a story you wrote in 2002?
I guess not! It’s not that succulent a subject and yet I can’t seem to stay away from it. I’ve always been drawn to medicine and its history, but also public health, and TB was the mother of all public health crises. People began to think of public health as an entity when this country handled the epidemic in the 1880s: The disease was so big and so bad that we had to consider it statewide and countrywide. Anyone with the disease was stigmatized; “others”—mainly poor immigrants—were branded as carriers, and fears of contagion were rampant. TB affected a different group than AIDS, but the psychological underpinnings are the same and that’s what interests me as a writer: how we respond to and deal with our fear, and
if we’re going to take care of each other.

Q: You’re known for intensive research, whether it’s about dew formation, mountain ranges, or shipbuilding. In this book, it seems X-rays really got you going.
Yes, and I’m writing something more about them, too. I can’t let them go. They’re fascinating, and in 1916 people were just beginning to use X-rays for medical purposes. They were different than what we know today, very vague, and required enormous skill to interpret. And, not surprising with my twisted imagination, I was drawn to the injuries experienced by those early experimenters. No one knew the rays were dangerous and could hurt you, and to do it day after day, putting your hand in front of them . . . well, it resulted in many sequential amputations. X-rays also became an interesting metaphor in the context of the novel: who gets to “see inside” another person and who doesn’t; what’s there just below the surface. There’s so much misunderstanding in this book due to the failure of seeing what’s underneath.

Q: When America joins the war, one character refuses to call his dachshund by his German name, insisting he’s a “liberty puppy.” This reminded me of “freedom fries.” Was that intentional?
All of it is intentional. There are so many similarities between that time, when public fear and hysteria were whipped up by the government, and the early stages of the Iraq invasion. It’s eerily analogous. The book was changed by September 11th and my being in New York at the time. After that, it became much more about the war.

Q: You studied science, then history, before becoming a writer. What took so long?
Looking back it’s still sort of puzzling to me, and I was not a happy young woman. But I didn’t know a person could be a writer, and I was close to 30 when I first met one. If you’re lucky, you find a teacher in college who points you in the right direction. But I never had an English course. I didn’t have a chance to be found.

Photograph: Barry Goldstein